Why Puppets Might Unlock the Cinematic Potential of ‘Beowulf’

From 'Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race' (1910), George G. Harrap & Co
From 'Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race' (1910), George G. Harrap & Co

Beowulf is indisputably a titan of English literature. Following the titular warrior on his heroic endeavours, slaying the monstrous Grendel and his mother before ultimately being bested by a dragon, the poem has been a mainstay on school and university syllabuses for years.

It pivots around a familiar concept, man versus beast, alongside other canonised epics like The Odyssey. Indeed, the Old English epic poem has maintained academic interest since the late 18th century while the aglæca (‘monster’) Grendel is arguably just one example of inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, himself a prominent Beowulf scholar. Despite its relatively simple premise—essentially ‘man kills monster’—this ancient text has captured the attention of many.

Yet Beowulf has never managed to engrain itself into popular culture. The closest it got was in Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture blockbuster from 2007, a film that suffered from the same uncanniness as Zemeckis’ unnerving Christmas favourite The Polar Express and appeared more dated than the original Anglo-Saxon text. Trapped in the uncanny valley, it appeared as if Beowulf would never successfully make the leap from academia to the silver screen. However the recently announced adaptation of Grendel, John Gardner’s novel which reworks Beowulf, may just change this.

Beowulf (2007) © Shangri-La Entertainment

Helmed by Dave Bautista as the titular, muscle-bound hero and Jeff Bridges as the cannibalistic devil Grendel, this adaptation will frame the monster as its protagonist, taking a sympathetic attitude to Grendel—much like Maria Dahvana Headley’s bombastic 2020 translation. This approach makes a lot of sense in the face of today’s prominent hyper-masculine figures, with the once heroic attitudes of Beowulf now befitting an Andrew Tate megalomaniac. But this observation is nothing new, with criticisms of Beowulf as an enterprising meathead having dominated the critical discourse for years. What is exciting about this new adaptation, however, is the involvement of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop: the home of The Muppets. 

Said to be managing the design of the film as well as the practical versions of Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, this new production couldn’t be further away from Zemeckis’ CGI extravaganza. It is safe to assume that the ghostly fenlands of Denmark and the creatures that reside in them will be more felt and feathers than digitally freakish. Put simply, Beowulf is likely to be retold via puppetry. This might feel like an odd approach to such a revered text—I’m sure I’m not the only one who is picturing the fearsome Grendel with Kermit the Frog’s toothless, clapping mouth. However, Beowulf has sustained critical attention precisely because, behind the straightforward plot, it is distinctly odd. Perhaps puppets are exactly what this adaptation needs.

An easy way to demonstrate the strange complexities of the original text is supplied via that word I evoked earlier, aglæca. It is an Old English noun, used throughout the poem when referring to any of the monsters, and has a long history of being translated in reference to them: ‘monster’, ‘adversary’, ‘assailant’, the list goes on. However, ever confusing, the poem also employs the word in reference to Beowulf, the hero, completely upturning its widely agreed meaning. Suddenly, the clear distinction between man and beast is blurred. Of course this presents opportunities for man meets Muppet-style interactions, where the distinction between actual people and puppets will be ignored completely, à la The Muppets Christmas Carol.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) © The Jim Henson Company

A similarly strange effect occurs in the text during the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. In translating this passage, one will find that pronouns in reference to each fighter become more and more indistinct. At times, it is impossible to tell who the poet is referencing, merging man with beast until the two are indistinguishable. Echoing the uncertain meaning of aglæca, this fusion shows that identity and bodies in Beowulf are never clear cut, despite the suffocatingly simplistic ‘man vs beast’ plot telling the reader otherwise.

Further still, while the dragon is your standard fire-breathing lizard, Grendel and his mother are physically a complete mystery. Possibly human, possibly monster, the only concrete bodily description given of the Grendelkin is that Grendel has long claws. His poor mother doesn’t even get given a name, with this igniting a rich critical history of gendered readings focusing on the absence, and reclamation, of women in the poem, a difficulty the new adaptation will have to navigate. Admittedly Grendel does eat people, so I don’t think it is worth arguing for his saintliness or feminist credentials. However, the biggest challenge will undoubtedly be capturing the ever-shifting bodies and identities of the strangely anonymous Grendelkin. 

Zemeckis’ film gave it a good go. His version of Grendel, played by Crispin Glover, appeared like a collage of disparate body parts. This nicely resonated with the mystery surrounding Grendel’s physicality in the original text, but the decision to cast Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, a gold-skinned seductress in his film, occluded the subtleties of the character with Hollywood star power. By then choking every performance with early 2000s motion capture technology, the characters of the piece were certainly construed as strange but also hollow, as if diluted by the limited technology of the time.

Enter the timeless art of puppetry! This is a design choice that will undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of many Beowulf scholars, but I would implore the doubtful to reconsider their judgement. Knowing that Beowulf is a deceptively simple plot filled with patchwork characters with interdisciplinary identities, what could be better than the unnerving familiarity of puppets? To then push puppets past the limits of their pop cultural referents by introducing violence and complex characteristics, as this adaptation hopefully will, it is possible that the strange dissonance which clouds the characters of Beowulf could be captured with the help of a Zippy-like creation. With the involvement of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Beowulf could finally be freed from the uncanny valley and unveiled to a wide audience as its contradictory self, both a fantasy tale and a rich existential drama. Of course, there is the chance that Beowulf’s cinematic strings could be cut yet again; but if there is any group to rely on in times of need, it’s The Muppets.

Words by Barney Nuttall

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